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On Monday night I visited my editor James at his apartment on Leith Walk and we slid in front of the television to watch the parliamentary debate on press regulation. James had taken half a dozen pages of notes before the anchorman finally mentioned in passing that Scotland would be introducing regulation of its own later in the year. James shuffled up his redundant notes crossly. “If the regulation is more draconian in Scotland, it might be expedient to relocate to England,” I pointed out. “We could cover Edinburgh’s news from Northumbria.”

“Our website is provided by WordPress,” James reasoned. “Whilst you could be bankrupted by the English or Scottish regulator’s “exemplary damages,” your writing will always be protected by the First Amendment.”

“Because WordPress is the publisher?”

James shrugged. “I have no idea whether WordPress actually owns our website. But if Tychy has any physical existence, it will be somewhere in America. The Westminster parliament fancies that they’re regulating the press, but they’re actually giving the unregulated media a massive competitive advantage. Say there was a new parliamentary expenses scandal tomorrow: the New York Times and the Washington Post would be able to report on it freely, whilst the coverage of their UK equivalents would be regulated by the state. If an MP fiddles their expenses, their constituents would have to read about it in the LA Times rather than in their local newspaper.”

I had started to roll a cigarette and I asked James if there was an ashtray to hand. James’ apartment is one of the few places in Edinburgh where I am still at liberty to smoke. Soon Edinburgh will have a single designated smoking area – the Pentlands – with smokers wading through blizzards and huddling behind snowdrifts.

James’ face lit up with mischief. “Do I have an ashtray? It depends what you mean by “have.” Come into my office and see this. I received it only this morning.”

At first it looked like a new photocopier. It had been planted in a specially-cleared space against the wall, like a cot for a new-born baby. My eye followed its wires along the floor to James’ desktop.

“The latest in 3D printing” James announced, momentarily respectful now that he was in its presence. “Afinia has sent us a freebee to review.” He sat down in front of the printer and eyed it greedily.

I was put on the spot and I had to think of a sensible comment. I remembered once coming across a review of a 3D printer on Youtube. The device had produced a forlorn range of inconsequential toys, not unlike those slim plastic flakes and trinkets which slither out of disembowelled Christmas crackers. “It looks very modern,” I observed.

“Exactly! This model is much faster than anything currently on the market.” James drew my attention to three kegs which were stacked in the shadows of the printer. “These contain the powder which will be sintered into plastic. Now, when it comes to an ashtray…” James began to rifle impatiently through an online catalogue. He looked briefly overwhelmed and then he had pounced upon a chance photograph. “This looks the ticket!”

James is the sort of man who scans the first three pages of an instruction manual to locate the product’s On button, and then decides that he will improvise from thereon. He was now watching the printer with the mistrustful suspense of a trainee pilot who is landing an airliner for the first time. It seemed that he was required to purchase coordinates from a website. The payment had to be verified and the printer had to accept the coordinates.

There was an imperceptible twinkle and the printer suddenly appeared to be awake. Something which resembled a magnified insect’s head chirruped and swivelled into position. It began to scribble away on a surface, whilst very delicate gears trundled mildly. At first I was looking merely at a picture, and then an object stepped boldly out of it, just as when an optical illusion changes before your eyes.

The savages encountered by Dr Livingstone did not behold an ashtray with greater awe than we did now. I dabbed at it with my fingertips and it was cool. The ashtray was light grey and it proved to be as chunky and glossy as amber in my hands. The plate was decorated with a crayon-coloured portrait of a Wild West cowboy, who grinned handsomely from under a Stetson, whilst over his shoulder zany desert rock formations were splashed with unearthly light from a setting sun.

I placed the ashtray on James’ desk and withdrew reverentially. “It’s certainly impressive,” I conceded.

I wondered whether James expected to sit there and watch me using the ashtray. Yet the spell was broken with a clap of his hands. “It’s gone the hour!” he cried. “I promised that we would meet Pablo at the Conan Doyle.”

On our way to the pub, we passed over six dozen people and all of them were drunk. Pablo was enthroned in an armchair, several episodes into an evening’s odyssey of drunkenness. He had washed through the isles of good humour and he was currently fixed on a glassy sea of apathy. He nodded faintly at our arrival, his eyes bleary.

Once everybody was established with a pint, James began to rattle away about the 3D printer. “We will live to see the next period of capitalism!” he crowed. “Previously, if a society needed shoes, thousands of them had to be imported at great expense. Now any individual can download the coordinates and produce their own. The producer and the consumer have become synonymous.”

“The prosumer?”

“The conducer?”

“The means of production are at once in private and collective ownership.”

“But people will become even more atomised,” I exclaimed.

“They will become supercharged atoms. Adam Smith’s old picture of a market town where a butcher and a baker and a candlestick maker sell each other the products of their labour is superseded at a stroke. The individual can become every shop on the high street.”

“A butcher?”

“Absolutely! Tubes of protein will be plugged into the 3D printer and it will print out fresh sirloin steaks. From vegetable mulch, peas and potatoes. Not only can data be turned into objects, but objects can be turned into data. Imagine, for example, that you are searching for a nursing home for your elderly parents. With this new technology, you could tour a prospective care home, take a few photographs, and then feed this data into the 3D printer. Your parents could be subsequently presented with a replica scale model of their future home.

“The medical benefits are innumerable. Suppose that you were diagnosed with testicular cancer. Your doctor could scan the tumour and produce a range of organic replicas, which could be then subjected to different courses of treatment in the lab to determine the best one. Why, you could even produce a huge replica of the tumour, hang it from your bedroom ceiling, and use it as a punch bag.”

Pablo was amused by James’ rhapsody to the latest feats of science, as if he was listening to a news report about some chimps which had been taught to play bingo. They were very clever, but only in their own way. Pablo is an old fascist who still holds a flame for Franco, and he regards the human condition with emphatic pessimism. Centuries of technological progress are, to him, all vanity and conceit. Humanity will show its true colours again before too long.

“James, this technology is very sad. If it becomes the success, millions of poor workers in China will lose their jobs. What are they to do then? Sell each other plastic ornaments which they have designed on their three dimension printers?”

James’ voice wobbled. “Yes…” He had stalled for a moment, but then he was back in gear. “They will have printed out their food, clothing and utilities. Once the software is installed, the only remaining expense is the magic powder.”

Pablo shook his head tragically, perhaps being already sucked towards an awaiting lagoon of drunken melancholy. “It’s like with music. When I was young you drunk the whisky and went to the jazz bar and listened to a beautiful woman singing the blues. Now the same music is on the fugging I-pod and you listen to it while you are pushing the trolley around Tesco. The reality has gone. It is the same with this 3D thingamajig. Beautiful things – things built with hard work by the craftsmen – will be devalued.”

As we made our way back down Leith Walk, James was faint with anger, gibbering to himself and almost walking into lampposts. His mind had got stuck rehearsing all of the things which he should have said to put Pablo in his place.

He had invited me back for a nightcap. We had been away for an hour or so, and perhaps the new press reform would make sense once we had looked at it with fresh eyes.

We were inside the tenement and climbing the stairs to the front door when we were both arrested by a sharp clunk from overhead.

We glanced at each other and then continued blankly. When we arrived at James’ door, an ashtray was waiting at our feet. It had fallen out of the letterbox.

It was as if my brain had ejected itself from my skull, leaving clear cold air where my mind had been. “How fast is this new printer?” I heard myself ask. Beside me, James made a sort of choking noise. His face was as white as bone.

The door sighed to itself and then jumped ajar with a snort. More ashtrays were skipping at our feet.

I threw open the door and slapped on the light. We were greeted with the sight of what looked like a gigantic shivering caterpillar covered in grey scales. It had sprawled throughout James’ home, nudging all of his furniture against the walls.

There are always roadworks on Leith Walk and from the detritus strewn about in the road, James selected a shovel and I a pickaxe. Upstairs we began to hack a path in the presumed direction of the printer.

When smote with my pickaxe, the ashtrays shifted in great lazy ripples like a disturbed shoal of fish. We smoothed them away before us and they caved in behind us, enclosing us within their dense crush. We soon lost all sense of our bearings. Ashtrays were probing into every part of my body below the neck, clicking together like hundreds of knitting needles, and I had no space to swing my pickaxe. I frequently forgot to stop and gulp down a breath from above the ashtrays. I commenced a sort of crabbed swim-walk through the bumps, occasionally flipping ashtrays over my shoulder in exasperation.

We eventually arrived at a patch of wall which James admitted was familiar to him, although he could not tell where in his flat it was. We deflected back into the interior, navigating by means of the light fittings overhead and the moonbeams from an occasional, unobscured window. As we penetrated further into the flat, the ashtrays against my skin became softer and flimsier. They squelched like mud under my boots.

“The more ashtrays the printer produces, the less solid they seem to get,” I gasped.

“It’s possibly running low on powder” James replied glumly.

The ashtrays gradually assumed a doughy quality. The handsome beaming cowboy in the centre of the ashtrays lost his good looks. His tanned skin melted and warped; his eyes shrank to slits and his jaw bulged into a slimy cake of flesh. The desert behind him came to resemble the surface of some diseased planet.

I located the printer quite by accident. I was groping ahead when my arm was suddenly pinned down and I almost bit off my tongue with the fantastic pain. I beat my head like a tambourine through a long merry song of agony until my arm was finally released. An ashtray had been encrusted into the skin just below my elbow. It wept like the bubo of a plague victim.

James burrowed his way to the machine and he yanked the plug out of the wall.

He studied the monitor. “I am now the owner of almost thirty thousand ashtrays,” he announced without warmth.

“I hope that you didn’t pay a tenner for each one.” I tried to pick at the ashtray on my arm, but the surrounding skin wailed with pain.

His eyes widened. “I believe that I’ve only paid for the coordinates…”

“Thank heaven we managed to reach the printer. Otherwise the whole of Edinburgh could have been drowned under an ocean of ashtrays. We’ve averted an apocalypse.”

“If I smoked for ten years, I still wouldn’t use each ashtray once.”

James plodded off to stay the night in a hostel. So far he has sold three of the ashtrays on E-bay. Oxfam has agreed to accept ten of them. There are at least twenty nine thousand remaining.

[Tychy returns in April. Ed.]